Nearby Waste Water Treatment Plant Causes A Stink With New Home Buyers

by Rich Vetstein on April 21, 2011 · 7 comments

in Disclosures, Massachusetts Real Estate Law, Realtors

Does A Massachusetts Seller and Realtor Have A Legal Duty To Disclose The Existence of a Smelly Waste Water Treatment Plant?

Dear Attorney Vetstein:

We purchased our first home in September. We were unfamiliar with the area and relied heavily on the realtor’s knowledge. After living there for a couple of weeks, we went outside to grill and there was a horrid stench to the air. We weren’t able to eat outside and couldn’t figure out where the smell was coming from. After a few times of this, we researched the area and found out that there was the town’s waste water plant behind what we thought was a house, but what was actually the office. We did a Google Earth search on the plant and it is quite large. We bought the house mainly for the large yard and were looking forward to bbq’s, planting a garden and in general spending a majority of our time outside as we had moved from the city.

Do we have any rights? Had the real estate agent or seller disclosed the existence of the smelly plant to us we would have never bought this house. We want to sell and fear that the home will be unsellable.

Your truly,

Worried About The Smell

Dear Worried,

While your Realtor did you no favors, I’m afraid that you (and your Realtor) should have driven around and investigated the neighborhood before you purchased this home.

Legally in Massachusetts, a private seller has no obligation to disclose anything to you about the home or nearby conditions. A seller can only get in trouble if he is asked a direct question and flat out lies about it. Since you did not indicate that you asked the seller the specific question of whether there were any nearby waste water treatment plants, you most likely won’t have any luck pinning this situation on the seller.

The Realtor, while standing on different legal footing, is also most likely not to blame legally. Under Massachusetts consumer protection regulations governing real estate brokers, a broker must disclose to a buyer “any fact, the disclosure of which may have influenced the buyer or prospective buyer not to enter into the transaction.” This standard, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that a Realtor must disclose every single conceivable on-site or, in this case, off-site condition which may impact the buyer’s decision to purchase. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has held that off-site conditions may require disclosure only if the conditions are “unknown and not readily observable by the buyer [and] if the existence of those conditions is of sufficient materiality to affect the habitability, use, or enjoyment of the property and, therefore, render the property substantially less desirable or valuable to the objectively reasonable buyer.” In that case, the court refused to hold a seller liable for the non-disclosure of toxic waste contamination at the nearby local elementary school which gave the seller difficulty selling previously.

The key factor here is that the waste water treatment plant is out in the open and obvious to anyone searching nearby. This situation underscores the importance of having a Realtor who knows the neighborhood and also doing your own basic due diligence, i.e, driving around the neighborhood.

I do sympathize with you plight. I’m not sure why the Realtor didn’t feel it was necessary (assuming he or she knew of the plant) to tell you about the stinky plant. It’s certainly something I would have wanted to know. You also didn’t tell me whether the Realtor was the listing agent or your own buyer’s agent. A listing agent’s duty is to the seller and getting the home sold. They do their best not to divulge too much info about the surrounding area, lest they get themselves in trouble (like this case). A buyer’s agent would be much more likely to advise you of problematic conditions like the plant (assuming they know about it). If they didn’t know about it, shame on them.

Sorry to deliver the “stinky” news…

Yours truly,

Richard D. Vetstein, Esq.

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  • Ryan

    Your Consumer Protection Link is no longer active. Please update.

  • Ryan

    What is the SJC citation for off site duty of disclosure? Any cases for duty to disclose onsite factors?

  • http://www.massrealestatelawblog.com Richard Vetstein

    Urman v. South Boston Sav. Bank, 424 Mass. 165 (1997) “In appropriate circumstances, off-site physical conditions known to vendor subject to statutory chapter addressing regulation of business practices for consumers’ protection may require disclosure if conditions are unknown and not readily observable by purchaser and if existence of those conditions is of sufficient materiality to effect habitability, use, or enjoyment of property and, therefore, render property substantially less desirable or valuable to objectively reasonable buyer.”

    I also fixed the link.

  • http://www.massrealestatelawblog.com Richard Vetstein

    Ryan, there are a slew of on-site cases, too many to list.

  • George

    Question, im in a similiar situation. But we specifically asked the agent via email and she responded that the owners have not noticed any smell whatsoever! They have lived there for 4 years! Needless to say the second day we lived there we noticed the toxic odor. What is our recourse?

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